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West Virginia Research Reveals Disparity in Infant Mortality Rates

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Dr. Lauri Andress, an assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, speaks about infant mortality issues during the Mountain State Racial Justice Summit, Saturday, at the BridgeValley Community and Technical College in South Charleston. Photo: Chris Dorst, Gazette-Mail

In West Virginia, it is 1.7 times more likely for a black infant to die before their first birthday, compared to a white infant.

This is one of the figures that came from Dr. Lauri Andress’ research on infant mortality.

At first, Andress, an assistant professor in the West Virginia University School of Public Health, struggled to find state-specific data on the issue, she said during a presentation at the Mountain State Racial Justice Summit, held at BridgeValley Community and Technical College’s South Charleston campus in West Virginia.

Each state is required to submit raw data of infant mortality rates to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some can request an analysis back, but Andress said West Virginia did not because the state has such a small population of African-Americans.

“That’s a factual statement by a statistician that I would expect, but it’s not a statement by your state government that you should stand for,” Andress said. “Because there are ways to think about minorities in the state and get at that analysis.”

Andress worked with CityMatCH, a Nebraska-based public health organization, to use those raw numbers to create an analysis. What that report found was that even though black infants account for only 4 percent of births, they make up 6 percent of infant deaths in the state.

Initially her research wasn’t about minority health, but she said the lack of attention the subject was receiving made her want to look into it more.

“I wasn’t until I got here and found out that African-Americans were not on the agenda in West Virginia that I became passionate about it,” she said. “I can go anywhere else in the United States and they will talk about African-Americans.”

She said other states that also don’t have large minority populations have created reports, adding that it’s not impossible, rather a matter of political will.

West Virginia has a law that requires the state to look into infant and maternal deaths, specifically infant deaths that occur before one year of age. This state law requires the health department to investigate and put together panels for other suspicious deaths, such as opioid and other drug abuse deaths.

There are national standards that must be adhered to while investigating infant deaths, including that the mother or family members are interviewed, according to the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention.

There are numerous reasons to interview the mother, Andress said. For example, the mother would be able to speak about her experience during the pregnancy and the prenatal care she received.

“There’s things you can’t get from the four corners of a death record,” Andress said. “If they interviewed mothers, we would at least know if there was a difference in what was happening to black moms and white moms that would make a difference in the percentage of black-versus-white infant deaths.”

Andress said there are two reasons she suspects the state might not do that. One is that it can be difficult to get grieving families and mothers to agree to talk, she said. Another reason is because of privacy laws.

“But you’re still up against a national standard and it’s the recommendation that when you’re trying to understand why infants are dying in your region, you’ll do an interview,” she said.

Even when black women have an education and high levels of income, their infants are still dying, but it’s not clear why, Andress said.

Another possible solution, she said, would be to create specialized panels in regions where there is a higher percentage of black women living. She said there is one panel at the state level that convenes in Charleston, but she said that they are overworked.

She adds that this problem is not unique to the Mountain State. Nationally, twice as many black infants die before they reach their first birthday, according to the National Birth Equity Collaborative, and in some cities, the rate of black infant mortality is three-times the national average.

“To understand this issue we need to look at the lives of these women,” Andress said. “This is a historical problem, it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s something that is happening everywhere.”

This article was originally published by the Charleston Gazette-Mail